Shock-Factor Reporting Endangers Berkeley’s Climate Action Plan

The City of Berkeley made headlines last fall for its innovative municipal solar financing program, and it quickly became a model for dozens of other progressive cities across the nation.

Mayor Tom Bates now has his sights set on another groundbreaking policy ripe for replication: municipal climate action plans.

But unlike the smooth-sailing solar deal, Berkeley's Climate Action Plan (CAP) has run into some major snags – most notably an incendiary article from the San Francisco Chronicle that put Berkeley citizens into an uproar.

Published a few days before the plan came up for review before the City Council, the article raised such a wave of concern that the council pushed back its scheduled vote to this coming Tuesday, in order to hear more public comments.

I spent some time getting to the bottom of Berkeley's publicity woes to find out what caused this bastion of progress to stall on such a landmark policy.

Berkeley residents gave the green light for the CAP when they overwhelmingly passed Measure G in 2006, committing the city to 80% greenhouse gas reductions by 2050.

A climate action coordinator, Timothy Burroughs, was hired to figure out not just what it would take to get Berkeley down to scientifically recommended carbon levels, but also how the city could become zero-waste, get 100% of its food grown within a 250 mile radius, de-carbonize its entire vehicle population, and aggressively promote high-density housing, all within the next 40 years. It may sound like an excerpt from Berkeley author Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia, but for Burroughs, it's his job.

After almost three years of research, public input and planning, Burroughs unveiled the newest version of the 145-page plan at the City Council meeting on April 21. It was expected that in its mature form, the CAP would pass easily and move on to the environmental review phase. Instead, it met an unexpected backlash.

What was the source? All signs point to San Francisco Chronicle reporter Carolyn Jones, who claimed that the Climate Action Plan will mandate retrofits costing Berkeley households upwards of $33,800 each.

News of that figure spread like wildfire, with her article receiving 100 online comments in the first 24 hours and rapidly rising.

The city was quick to release a memo "correcting" Jones' claim. City Manager Phil Kamlarz responded to the $33,800 figure by saying:

"This is false. Moreover, this assertion contradicts one of the fundamental goals of the CAP – to lower the costs of energy upgrades in homes and businesses."

"The article implies that the city will force residents to comply with energy standards 'in the next few years.' This is not accurate. Rather, the CAP states that energy standards need to be developed through a collaborative process with the community and subject ultimately, to the City Council's review and consideration."

However, much of the damage had already been done. Despite the fact that the CAP is in its third draft, having had two lengthy public comment periods, fierce arguments regarding cost and economic impact were back on the table.

Economic impact is arguably one of the CAP's weakest points – the Berkeley community has been calling for greater detail and concrete cost estimates, and CAP staff have basically refused to provide them. But to be fair, this is not because city officials don't want to divulge costs. It's because a complex set of interacting policies will be developed in the future via the collaborative community process, making current cost estimates or averages impossible (and politically dangerous) to ascertain.

At this point, CAP planners are just trying to gain consensus around overall goals and strategies to meet Measure G, and they intend to let the community decide which carrots and sticks are placed when and where to make it happen.

So why were wild (and ultimately, inaccurate) cost figures strewn about so carelessly? Here's what Jones said:

"Because of the story placement (front page, plus alarmist graphic), a lot of readers misunderstood or didn't read the story completely, so there's been a huge uproar and a lot of panic about what the city actually intends to do."

She also said, "I have checked and re-checked the story, before and after publication, with numerous people and there's nothing to correct."

City of Berkeley officials disagree – they maintain that this reporter is in fact spreading misinformation, snowballing an "inaccurate" take of their Climate Action Plan into a fear-mongering frenzy.

To fight the misinformation, Burroughs gave a compelling interview on KQED radio, while Eric Klein of the East Bay Express published excerpts from the CAP and explained,

"The plan, as reported by the region's premiere daily paper, would be draconian – if it were true. ... Apparently, the article mistook suggestions about what the city might do as nearly unavoidable facts."

The number-crunching was eerily reminiscent of the GOP's flawed arithmetic regarding the cost of a national cap-and-trade program.

Jones writes in her article that she simply took proposed efficiency strategies within the CAP document (such as replacing single-pane windows with double-panes), called up her local Home Depot, and tallied the grand total of every single efficiency measure mentioned.

Her egregiously inflated $33,800 figure over-estimates the number of retrofits needed per household and accounts for no incentive financing or subsidies.

Most critically, it ignores the fact that every house will be retrofitted on a completely customized basis, favoring cost-effectiveness above all. No building would be subject to every efficiency measure listed – in fact, no building would be subject to mandatory efficiency measures of any sort (at least for now).

Therein lies the biggest fallacy of all – none of the efficiency standards proposed in the CAP are mandates.

The document simply lists strategies that city officials and residents can consider pursuing. The CAP's major recommendation (and goal) is that a collaborative community process be used to help reduce energy efficiency costs for residents, utilizing the guidelines and research provided by the CAP team.

Indeed, the ultimate purpose of the plan is to "guide the development, enhancement, and ultimately the implementation of actions that aggressively cut Berkeley's greenhouse gas emissions" – not impose specific policy. Future policies (aka targets, mandates, and regulations) will be crafted by community stakeholders in a public process.

To see for yourself, here's an excerpt from the document that gives you a taste of how the plan reads. "Implementing actions" are the suggestions with the greatest level of specificity in the plan:

"Implementing Action: In collaboration with energy service providers, community stakeholders and local governments in the region, develop and phase in a local energy standard for existing nonresidential buildings that is designed to facilitate deep, cost-effective reductions in energy use."

That hardly reads like a mandate – certainly not one that would equate a finite price tag within a looming timeline.

CAP supporters and city officials hope that the truth about the purpose and content of the plan will be able to rise above the turbulent publicity of last week. The City Council now expects to vote on whether to approve the plan for its next phase of review at its May 5 meeting.

This last-minute public relations tremor is certainly a compelling reminder of the power of media, and a wake-up call on the proactive messaging needed to insulate these climate roadmaps from attack.

It's also a lesson for Washington lawmakers who are working on a cap-and-trade bill that is still missing the details needed to determine its true cost: If Berkeley residents are reticent to adopt a climate plan without explicit 'price caps' and 'safety valves' and 'offramps,' how will the nation react?

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